April 3, 2017

The first two years for Pitt under Head Coach Pat Narduzzi, have been mostly positive. The defensive-minded coach, though, has had to rely on the offense to be the side doing the heavy lifting.

The lack of depth and overall talent on the defense has been glaring — especially with the type of defense Narduzzi utilizes. Bringing pressure constantly without going all-out blitz. It relies on overall speed, depth to bring fresh bodies, and individual talents. All things missing from the defense.

During last season, as the injuries mounted and the defense definitely looked worse from week-to-week, I know I was among those openly musing about changing the defense to better fit the present situation. That didn’t happen. Narduzzi has a plan and his defensive coordinator, Josh Conklin agreed with him. As he said back in early November right before some game against Clemson.

Defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said the staff is trying to build a program that flourishes far beyond the outcome that plays out Saturday in Memorial Stadium, whether it’s a 50-point victory for Clemson or a 50-yard field goal by kicker Chris Blewitt that wins it for Pitt.

“Our coaching staff, they’re in,” Conklin said. “They’re in it for the long haul.”

Conklin said this season in which Pitt has fallen to 5-4 after a 5-2 start is similar to 2009 at Michigan State when Narduzzi was defensive coordinator.

Coach Mark Dantonio was 6-7 in his third season, but in the next six years, the Spartans won 65 games and three Big Ten championships.

“All of a sudden, they got the guys in the right positions and had a couple of recruiting classes, and they had a lot of success,” Conklin said. “We’re going to stay the course.”

That’s not easy for Pitt with a roster that continues to need fortification after medical issues and injuries sidelined 12 defensive players for various times. And that’s before you mention impatient fans who are wondering why a team whose coach has a reputation for defensive genius is last in the ACC in scoring defense (34.4 points) and passing defense (317.1 yards).

“Sometimes the progress that you want to see immediately is not there,” Conklin said. “But the foundation we are building in terms of resiliency and the desire that they want to be good, it’s there.”

And this is the year, we are hoping to start seeing the fruits of that plan.

That plan for the defense starts up front on the D-line. Where Charlie Partridge is now in charge. Right now, Partridge seems to be encouraged or at least being very positive about the overall potential of the defensive line. Partridge is also happy to be working at Pitt (again) under Narduzzi.

He said he likes how Narduzzi expects his coaches to work hard, but wants them to keep the job in its proper perspective.

“Some football coaches grind just to say they grind and put in hours just to say they did,” Partridge said. “We are very efficient and productive with our time, and I appreciate that because we all have families that we love. But we’re going to work.”

Partridge has plenty of that to keep him busy while looking for at least three new starters on the defensive front among the 20 players in his position group.

Ends Rori Blair and Dewayne Hendrix and tackles Jeremiah Taleni and Amir Watts have received much of the first-team work in spring practice, backed up by ends Allen Edwards, James Folston and Kaezon Pugh and tackles Keyshon Camp, Shane Roy and Mike Herndon.

“(Taleni) is definitely the guy who is on another level from those guys,” Partridge said. “Camp and Watts are battling. Roy and Herndon are battling. They’re definitely earning my trust more and more every day.”

The fact that this year, Pitt should be able to rotate the d-line players without a major drop-off will be huge. It is hard not to think that part of why Tyrique Jarrett and Shakir Soto started having injury issues in the second half of the season, was related to the volume of snaps they played.

Partridge is known as an excellent recruiter, so his ability to relate and communicate with the players as their coach clearly is helping. As the trust seems to be there.

Then there are the defensive tackle spots, where Taleni gives Partridge “a pulse on the whole group” by the way he prepares each day. Sophomore Amir Watts saw some snaps last year in his first season on campus, and redshirt junior Shane Roy has impressed Narduzzi, but redshirt freshman Keyshon Camp has been an early standout this spring.

Partridge praised the raw talent of Camp, considered by multiple recruiting sites as a four-star recruit a year ago, and Narduzzi noted a clear difference in Camp’s game.

“I don’t want to say pleasant surprise, because we saw a lot of great things out of him, [but] he lacked a little bit of motor last fall,” Narduzzi said. “The motor’s not a problem anymore. He’s got his motor going.”

Perhaps Partridge has helped with that. After three unsuccessful seasons as head coach at Florida Atlantic, he’s back with the same program where he coached from 2003-07. To Hendrix, it’s obvious his position coach has a presence about him.

“I love him,” Hendrix said. “I feel like he’s a great coach. I feel like he’s the perfect fit. That missing piece that we needed, I feel like he fills it.”

Another player that will help on the d-line is expected to be Kamonte Carter.

Carter — at 6 feet 4, 300 pounds and better known just as “Kam” — is Pitt’s only junior-college transfer in the 2017 class. He signed his letter of intent with the rest of the crop last month, but it’s not just his potential TV stardom that could set him apart.

There’s also the experience factor. Not only has he played football at this level before, albeit in the junior-college ranks, but his career started in an ironic place. Penn State was his first stop out of Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, but right around this time a year ago, after his redshirt freshman season, Carter was dismissed from the team because of an undisclosed violation of team rules.

Carter himself has no problem disclosing those now.

“Basically, I overslept a drug test,” he said. “That ended up being my third failed drug test.”

“I had a couple mess-ups early on, being young and immature, but as far as maturity and making sure I’m putting myself in the best position to be seen as a leader on the team [at Pitt], I’m putting myself in the best position for that,” Carter said. “I’ve kicked the weed, I’ve kicked everything. I’m clean. I have been for a good time now. I pride myself on that.”

He also has been told he’ll be a main character on the next season of Last Chance U, which is expected to air in July. That’ll be in between his arrival at Pitt for the summer and the start of training camp in August, when he’ll try to stand out amid a number of defensive linemen competing for playing time.

If he does, come September, he’ll have a chance to play a central role against his former team-turned-biggest rival.

“Honestly, man, it’s interesting, to say the least,” Carter said with a laugh. “I can’t wait to get back in Beaver Stadium, beat Penn State, do what I’ve got to do on that field, contribute to that win.”

It’s not like that game won’t be extremely interesting and intriguing without this additional subplot. This is Carter’s big and likely last chance at FBS level football. He’s been humbled. He seems to have learned from his mistakes. He is also, very likely, aware that his leash for mistakes (off-the-field) is practically none.

Reasons to expect a better D

– more speed and athleticism at LB and DB
– more depth especially at DL
– addition of an accomplished defensive coach
– easier schedule? (doubt very much Pitt D will face the amount of quality QBs and WRs that it did last year … except for the OOC)

Comment by wbb 04.03.17 @ 10:18 am

Great stuff Chas, Spring is the time for optimism.

Lot’s of new guys on the D this year. Hopefully they start living up to their potential and stay a lot healthier this year.

Comment by gc 04.03.17 @ 10:21 am

Good to turn the page from the awfulness at the Pete. Glad we have the optimism of Narduzzi to look forward to.

Comment by Will 04.03.17 @ 11:48 am

I too am very happy to moving away from basketball. Looking forward to positive things to come with Pitt football. I will tough to match last year’s offense, but do think the offense will be good. I also expect the defense to be a lot better. On balance, it should be easier to win games, if the defense isn’t giving so many big plays.

Comment by Justinian 04.03.17 @ 12:34 pm

Narduzzie uses an offense that about 70% of the d1 teams use it is flexible for different types of offenses but requires smart play , speed and depth which Pitt has been lacking. Narduzzie has chosen to bite the bullet and build instead of adjusting to what players he has . We will be better if this all comes together.H2P

Comment by Pitt60 04.03.17 @ 1:27 pm

Defense needs to improve dramatically this season because last seasons offense is going to be hard to duplicate. As wbb stated earlier the linebackers this season look to be more athletic and the defense should be better as a unit with more talent at all levels.

Comment by WLAT 910 radio and the big beat! 04.03.17 @ 3:51 pm

They need to teach our DBs to actually make a play on the ball and don’t just run alongside the WR?! I don’t know how many times Maddox or someone else was just running in the guy’s hip pocket but never looked back for the ball or tried to sweep the guy’s outstretched arms — you don’t get points for just being there?

Comment by Matt N. 04.03.17 @ 5:11 pm

I’m hoping and expecting big things for Wirginis this season — that guy is a player. Also liked what I saw from Brightwell. Sounds like the D-line might be pretty good so looks like it comes down to our pass coverage again…wonder if they ever considered moving Whitehead to corner as he clearly has the speed and athleticism to handle it?

Comment by Matt N. 04.03.17 @ 5:13 pm

Wbb, I’ll add one more: At least in terms of pass defense: It can’t get any worse.

Comment by HbgFrank 04.03.17 @ 6:57 pm

It can always get worse Frank, look at the basketball team.

Comment by alcofan 04.03.17 @ 8:16 pm

I’m more than good with Narduzzi and crew and the work they are doing. The football program is trending up and the program seems to be in good hands.

IF one of you starts talking about “we need to be at next level” I am going to absolutely freak out.

We are competitive and can beat anyone including the national champion on any given day. If all the stars line up correctly we could make it to a payoff game someday. I don’t think that a Pitt fan should or could ask for more.

Comment by Tony in Harrisburg 04.03.17 @ 9:39 pm

Playoff game (someday there will be an edit button)

Comment by Tony in Harrisburg 04.03.17 @ 9:39 pm

Ron Cook wrote the truth.

Comment by Grizzly1 04.04.17 @ 7:18 am

Patrick Ewing to coach Georgetown. Should be interesting.

Comment by alcofan 04.04.17 @ 7:45 am

Whitehead won’t be at corner but has been practice at Free Safety instead of Strong Safety.

Comment by Pittastic 04.04.17 @ 9:36 am

Good move for Whitehead, more freedom to move use his skill set. Yes DBs must be after the ball from the beginning not waiting till the receivers eyes start getting big. H2P

Comment by Pitt60 04.04.17 @ 2:06 pm

Almost spit out my coffee, PSU ad on this site.

Comment by gc 04.06.17 @ 7:31 am

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